South China Sea: Modern Naval Conflict in the South Pacific (Compass Games, 2017) is a conflicted game. Conflicted in that it can’t quite decide just what game it wants to be. In turn, this makes my feelings for the game just as conflicted.
Let me be clear up front – I generally like South China Sea but wish it was better. I honestly have little room to complain as I was a marginal participant in the open playtest designer John Gorkowski ran. I did a pass through the original rules draft and provided comments to John. Unfortunately, I was unable to stay involved. So in a sense I had my chance to influence the game before publication and failed. I should be happy with what the product is; and like I said I generally am. That said, I still have conflicts!
South China Sea (hereafter SCS) is a combination of two games played out in Political Turns and Military Turns. Political Turns represent 3-7 weeks of international action. If (when?) conflict erupts, the game transitions to Military Turns representing several hours of combat operations.
This is SCS‘s first conflict; is it a political or military game? Political Turns are played using a deck of cards. Some cards are playable only by Global Powers (US and China) while others can only be played by the Regional Powers (Malaysia, Vietnam, The Philippines). Card play moves the Victory Point Track which starts at 10VP. Moving down the track (minus VP) is good for the US, while moving up the track (positive VP) is good for China. So for the US to win they have to have less VP. [Forgive me for being an American, but having less VP seems counterintuitive to me.]
My second conflict with SCS is Armed Conflict, specifically how it happens. Certain cards call for a Roll for Armed Conflict which, if failed, moves the game to Military Turns. Now, I guess I can see how (few) cards affect the initial set-up, but it is few. I am not sure the balance between the Political Turns and Military Turns in really there; the Roll for Armed Conflict seems to be a rush to get the “forces to sea” and start the fight.
My third conflict with SCS is the Military Turns themselves. I am conflicted here because I actually really like the Military Turn Sequence and how it uses rules for Situational Awareness. Although units on the map are “spotted,” they must be Illuminated to be targeted. Evasion is how units escape Illumination, and Hiding is avoiding Illumination. These rules are a simple way to portray the battle to locate the other side. Combined with a very simple Strike mechanic (2d6 + Weapon System Score +/- Modifiers vs Defense Score or Missile Defense) combat is resolved quickly. The Air/Sea Engagement Sequence captures the order of Strikes with Stealth Rating vitally important as most Strikes are resolved in descending order of Stealth Rating. Thus, the Stealth Rating (3) F-35 fires first against the Stealth Rating (2) J-31. Simple mechanics makes for simple combat resolution while maintaining the feel of modern naval combat.
My fourth conflict in SCS are the game components, specifically the map and counters. The counters feel a bit “thin” for my taste and are graphically very crowded. Having all the information needed to play on the counter face is very helpful but I and not sure you want to risk any corner clippers with these! The map is more problematic. Look below:
Although hard to see there are actually two map sheets. They do not butt against each other, but actually overlap by 5 hexes. Why? None of the scenarios are single mappers…so why the large overlap? Note also the littoral and sea hexes to the west of Myanmar. Why? Bangkok is not used in any scenario (Thailand is not a playable country) so is this for a future expansion? Another part that bothers me is the placement of the Guam and Okinawa Transit Tracks…on the northwest part of the map or away from where the US player is likely to sit (for it seems to me the logical seating would be PRC to the north, US to the south, Vietnam west, The Philippines to the northeast, and Malaysia to the southeast). Thus the Transit Tracks are about as far away from the US player as they could be. To my untrained eye it seems to me that west edge of the map could be five hexes closer and added to the east edge giving space to move the Transit Tracks to the same side of the map as the entry hexes.
I played a solo game to experiment with the rules and learn the game system. Although the Political Turns are not really soloable, in my effort to experiment with the system I played through a sample game assuming that:
- China’s overarching goal was to assert sovereignty in the SCS
- The US opposed China and wanted Freedom of Navigation
- Malaysia generally supported the Chinese
- Vietnam generally supported the US
- The Philippines was focused inward (but leaned to the US)
After the cards were dealt I “played” out the first round. The Chinese led by publishing a negative Human Rights Report on the US but it didn’t shift world opinion. US companies in the meanwhile made a major Gas/Oil Find in the SCS and gained 2VP while avoiding armed conflict. Embassy Demonstrations in Malaysia were ignored, and a Humanitarian Disaster in Vietnam allowed the US to place one Arleigh Burke DDG near Cam Rahn Bay. The Philippines tried appeal for ASEAN Solidarity and when supported by Vietnam pushed the VP further to the US side. Of note, the VP Track starts at 10 VP with less VP good for the US and more VP favoring China. At the end of the first Political Turn the VP had moved 4VP towards the US (6VP on the track). In the Political Negotiation Phase, I simulated the give-n-take by trading cards since the Global Powers had cards they could not play and vice-versa for the Regional Powers.
In the second Political Turn the Chinese led off with a High Level Visit to Malaysia but again failed to move the Victory Track. The US played Economic Sanctions and, with the support of Vietnam and The Philippines, shifted the VP again (now at 5VP). Malaysia invited China for a Combined Military Exercise but it backfired and shifted world opinion further towards the US (VP track now at 4VP!). Not wanting to risk a conflict while things were going well for their patron, both Vietnam and The Philippines passed (discard). In the Political Negotiation Phase a few more cards were traded.
Trying to get something back, the Chinese declared a major Gas/Oil Find and shifted 2VP in their favor while avoiding armed conflict. The US played a High Level Visit that fizzled (no change in VP) and Malaysia passed (discard) while trying to avoid igniting a conflict. The Vietnamese instigated a Embassy Demonstration outside the of the PRC consulate but again the world ignored. The Philippines then tried to buy arms (Arms Sales) from the US, which agreed, and moved the VP marker to 2VP. However, the roll for armed conflict failed and the game moved to Military Turns.
Of note, playing strictly by the RAW and with 5-players and factoring in Analysis Paralysis, this card play portion of the game might of been 45 minutes or more. That’s assuming 2-minutes per card play and the 10-minute Negotiation Phase at the end of each 5-card round. All this interaction placed exactly one unit on the map in my game.
The scenario being played was Scenario 1: Clash of the Flattops. This pits a US Carrier Strike Group (CVN with F-35s escorted by DDG and a Virginia SSN in loose company) versus two Chinese CV with J-31 and J-15 navalized fighters and escorts supported by a Song/Yuan SS. The scenario calls for six Military Turns.
Combat was…quick. By the end of the third Military Turn the Chinese strike against the US carrier group had failed and the Americans refused to enter the range of SSMs on Hainan. One Chinese CV and both naval fighter squadrons were destroyed at the cost of one Vietnamese fighter squadron. Seeing no way to win, I declared a cease-fire in the Military Negotiation Phase at the end of the third Military Turn. The total play time for the Military Turns was maybe 30 minutes.
As a longtime fan, collector, and player of Victory Games’ Fleet Series, it is inevitable that I compare SCS to the Fleet Series. SCS, with its simple Strike resolution mechanic and superior Air/Sea Engagement Sequence is a faster playing, more streamlined game than the Fleet Series that also seemingly better captures the feel of modern naval combat. But SCS – at least this first iteration – seems to lack the some of the depth that the Fleet Series has. I admit that more depth may mean more “chrome” on the game and more rules overhead and time to play. I think it may be worth it as the “bones” of SCS (Situational Awareness, Strike, and the Air/Sea Engagement Sequence) are strong.
Finally, there are two other (very) small quibbles I have with SCS. The first is the subtitle and the reference to “South Pacific.” I’m sorry – when I think of the South Pacific I think of it in terms of World War II and the South China Sea is NOT part of that definition. Second, there is this section of the publisher’s blurb,
Most important, SCS allows naval units to move more than one hex in a single turn, but includes a mechanism, based on stealth, that enables the other side to “check” multi-hex moves to create a more dynamic, variable, and volatile environment. This last adjustment allows quick moves at a distance, but prevents close-in ships from “jumping” through the beaten zone of modern anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM), 290 nmi in some cases.
In all my time as a naval grognard and while on active duty as a naval officer I never heard the term “beaten zone” used with ASCMs. “Engagement Zone” maybe, but not beaten zone. In my mind I associate beaten zone with artillery and the Army. Maybe I’m behind the times….